We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it

Frozen lives amid Baku’s festivities

15.06.18-Khadija Ismayilova-590x393.jpg

Khadija Ismayilova, Azerbaijan's fearless investigative journalist, interviews U.S. Senator Ben Cardin in Baku, June, 2014. Kyle Parker under a Creative Commons Licence

Last week human rights activist Emma Hughes was detained in Azerbaijan. She had traveled to the country to cover government repression during the European Games currently being held in the capital city of Baku. Emma and James Marriott have just released All That Glitters – a new book covering the heady mix of sport, hydrocarbons and repression in Azerbaijan. Emma and James also wrote about the games in New Internationalist’s latest magazine issue. Below Emma writes of her recent deportation from Azerbaijan and highlights the courage of journalist Khadija Ismayil and others who speak out against the Aliyev regime despite intimidation and imprisonment.

As I sat detained in Heydar Aliyev International airport the minute long advert for the Baku 2015 games ran on repeat. For 12 hours I saw static athletes rise out of the Caspian Sea – captured in moments of sporting prowess. Their frozen figures seemed a curiously fitting representation of the academics, activists, journalists and lawyers whose lives have been put permanently on hold in Azerbaijan. In the run up to Baku 2015 the number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan has grown to well over 100. People imprisoned for speaking out against the Aliyev regime and its corporate backers, with BP chief among them.

One of these prisoners is journalist Khadija Ismayil. In mid-October 2014 Khadija was attending the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. Azerbaijan was coming to the end of its six month chairing period. Founded in 1949, the Council exists to promote co-operation between European countries. It is responsible for safeguarding legal standards, human rights and democracy. Since Azerbaijan became a member in 2001, it has become a key battleground and meetings are well attended by both the Azeri regime and Azeri civil society. The former is keen to make the case that all fundamental rights are upheld in Azerbaijan and the latter press the Council to hold Azerbaijan accountable for the daily abuses of those rights.

Khadija went to the council to tell European MPs about the multiple ways Azerbaijan is violating its membership. After a long day of meetings, Khadija and Giorgi Gogia from Human Rights Watch sat in the Council lobby waiting for a meeting with the president of the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly, Anne Brasseur.

It had been a difficult trip. Many of the Azeris who would normally be at the Council are now in jail. The most notable absence is human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev who has brought over 200 cases to the European Court of Human Rights. Everyone knew that Khadija’s own arrest was only a matter of time. While they waited Giorgi asked Khadija to say something on camera, something she wanted to tell others if she were arrested. Without hesitation Khadija says: ‘Keep fighting guys. Keep fighting for human rights, for those who are silenced.’ With a slight shake of her head and a small smile she added: ‘If arrest is the price of it, it’s okay, it’s worth it.’ Giorgi recorded it on his mobile phone. On 5 December, Human Rights Watch released Giorgi’s video of Khadija; it was the day of her arrest.

Khadija was born in Baku in the late 1970s. Her family was not wealthy; she had to work for her success. Energy and intelligence led to her quick promotion, not family connections. She became a journalist at 21 when the newspaper she was doing translation work for ran short of staff. She was sent out to get a story and then never stopped. Her work led to her becoming head of Radio Free Europe’s Azerbaijan service. There she did the investigative journalism that would eventually see her jailed.

Khadija is adamant that she didn’t set out to target the Aliyevs. The first time we met her in the offices of the radio station, just after she’d got off air from her daily show, she told us: ‘I didn’t go after the president, it’s just whatever business you dig into in Azerbaijan their names pop up.’ As she followed the money trail she was piecing together how Azerbaijan’s political élite keeps hold of the country’s most valuable assets. She began publishing stories about the president, the First Lady, their children Leyla, Arzu, and Heydar, their friends and relatives.

She revealed the many companies that they own, the huge profits these businesses make – often through deliberate price inflation on construction projects – and how these profits are routed through mysterious proxies and siphoned into offshore accounts. She showed how the Aliyev family controls the country’s gold and silver mines and Azerbaijan’s telecoms company NAR – one of the key sponsors of the Games – and she tracked what they spent their money on; luxurious properties in London and elsewhere. In short, Khadija showed the Azeri people how the élite had grabbed and squandered the country’s money. It was incendiary reporting and the Aliyevs could not ignore it.

One week after publishing her investigations into Azerbaijani telecoms in 2012, someone planted a camera in Khadija’s bedroom. Months later, when she was in the middle of a story about the interests profiting from the National Flag Square in Baku, Khadija received a letter and some stills taken from a video. The letter stated that if she did not cease her activities the video would be published on the internet. The photos were of her having sex with her boyfriend. Khadija refused to stop her work. The video was posted to the internet.

A smear campaign began against Khadija, with articles repeatedly appearing in national newspapers talking about the videos and labelling her a ‘loose’ woman. Although psychologically shaken by the regime’s attacks Khadija continued her investigations, refusing to be silenced.

The regime has targeted many other journalists. Elmar Huseynov ran the magazine Monitor, which was openly critical of the Aliyevs. After a decade of harassment he was murdered in March 2005. It is widely believed the government was responsible. Khadija spoke of Huseynov’s death: ‘They killed him at his doorstep. And the first thing I thought when I heard was, “It’s my responsibility too. It’s my fault as well, because he was doing it alone.”’ The murder catalyzed Khadija. Not only her investigative work; she also began mentoring younger journalists, supporting other activists, and campaigning herself. Her energy and determination became a touchstone of the Azeri democracy movement. The government was determined to remove her in the hope that all civil society opposition would crumble.

On the day of her arrest, 5 December 2014, she was bundled into a car with cameras flashing and friends banging on the roof shouting her name. She managed to smile and wave, absorbing the melee before being confined to the silence of her cell in Kurdexani prison.

On Friday 12 June, the Games opened, Khadija was only a few kilometres to the north in Kurdexani prison. Internment has not silenced this fierce critic. In the first six months of imprisonment Khadija managed to smuggle four letters out of jail, the most recent during the Games. In it she explains that Azerbaijan is experiencing a ‘human rights crisis’ and that the situation has never been worse. For these acts of defiance the regime used solitary confinement, cell searches and a bar on visitors to punish her.

Khadija’s message remains the same: keep strong and keep fighting. She urges her supporters to: ‘Speak up publicly and loudly. I don’t believe in human rights advocacy behind closed doors.’ Her time in jail has been spent reading and writing. She is translating a book. She tries to support other prisoners by helping draft appeal statements. In a letter published in March 2015 Khadija wrote, ‘Prison is not the end of life. I am learning the wrongdoings of the penitentiary and justice system. I take it as a challenge.’ She remains ‘full of hope that truth and justice will win’.

Help us keep this site free for all

Editor Portrait New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.

Support us » payment methods

Subscribe   Ethical Shop